Bucking the trend toward intolerance

September 04, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN, Del. -- David Bloodsworth, part-time mayor, doesn't know how many people live in his town anymore.

But trash collection is up, housing is tight, and the police chief is pushing to hire a Spanish-speaking officer.

Immigration -- 1990s style -- has come to Georgetown, a 203-year-old hamlet whose official history is titled "Sixteen Miles From Anywhere." What began as a trickle five years ago has turned into a flood. Immigrants, mainly from Guatemala, have taken jobs in local chicken processing plants. Numbering from 400 to 1,200 -- no one has counted -- the immigrants have crowded into ramshackle single-family homes and stretched town services designed for 4,114 longtime residents.

"I get emotional and feel very strong about this," said Mr. Bloodsworth, a 57-year-old former school teacher who became the town's mayor three months ago. "When I ran for office, I said, 'The Latinos are here and they are here to stay. Will we make it a negative experience or a positive experience?' "

The question could echo throughout America, a nation of immigrants that periodically slams its doors against new arrivals.

Mr. Bloodsworth is fighting against a national tide of sentiment in favor of again shutting the doors.

He has not paid much attention to the polls that show Americans want to do this. He has not heard much of the incumbent governor of California who has revitalized a flagging campaign by hammering away at illegal immigration.

And he is not in intimate touch with the political maneuvering over the more than 30,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees who have been placed in the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

All Mr. Bloodsworth knows is this: He wants desperately to help the Guatemalans assimilate into a community that was once three-quarters white and one-quarter black.

"In a small town like this, what can you do?" Mr. Bloodsworth said. "We need H-E-L-P. Health. Education. Language. Protection."

Georgetown, with its quaint Victorian homes and magnificent brick courthouse, would appear to be one of the last places to be a magnet for immigrants.

Now, in a section of town by the railroad tracks, rooms often rent by plant shift hours, forged work visas can be had for $50 and police often encounter unlicensed drivers in unregistered automobiles.

Language is a barrier. Fewer than a dozen townspeople speak Spanish. The Guatemalans speak virtually no English.

Georgetown, 16 miles from anywhere, is now part of the front line.

The story of immigrants overwhelming local services -- and creating a backlash -- has been repeated over and over in places like New York, Texas, Florida and California. It has also occurred in a small city like Wausau, Wis., which saw a modest effort to take in a few Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s balloon to an immigrant community of more than 4,000 today.

America is in the midst of the greatest immigration wave since the turn of the century, when 14.5 million newcomers streamed into a country less than half of today's size over two decades. Yet it appears Americans are growing weary of providing shelter for the tired, poor, huddled masses of the world.

Just check the political races in California, which has absorbed 3.5 million of the nearly 10 million legal immigrants who have entered the country since 1989. Nearly half the estimated 3.5 million illegal aliens also reside in the state.

Pete Wilson, the incumbent Republican governor, and Diane Feinstein, the incumbent Democratic senator, have aired tough commercials on illegal immigration. The Nov. 8 California ballot also features Proposition 187 -- a measure that would ban public services to illegal immigrants. Latest polls show lopsided support for the initiative.

"People basically are in a constricting mood when it comes to immigrants," said John Brennan, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll.

The mood has been building for more than a year, punctuated by such incidents as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing -- carried out by illegal aliens from the Middle East -- and the dumping of 256 Chinese nationals off the rusting freighter The Golden Venture in New York.

Toss in changing economic times, the televised images of desperateHaitians and Cubans making their way to the United States on makeshift rafts, and you have the recipe for a backlash.

"Anti-immigration emerges from and then lags economic change," said Michael Fix, co-author of an immigration report for The Urban Institute, a Washington policy think-tank. "In times of economic stress, we often focus on new problems and new issues. We often change enemies."

It has happened before. The great immigrant wave at the turn of the century was shut down in 1924, less than a decade after the end of World War I. Some would like to shut the gates again.

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